US Life Expectancy: Causes

Reduced life expectancy is affecting three generations:Baby Boomers, Gen X (born 1973-1980) and Gen Y (born 1981-1991). While the overall average change is minor, life expectancy among the very wealthy is stil increasing, having reached approximately 88 years. To achieve, a minor negative change, it has to fall significantly among other groups. That’s the way averages work.

Researchers at Duke University have explored the causes of change, and they’re more complex than original reports suggested, and vary by generation.(1)

For Baby Boomers, the key issues across all demographic groups are

  • Drug overdoses
  • External causes — such as traffic accidents and homicides
  • Suicides
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)

For the late Gen X  and early Gen Y  age cohorts, leading causes of death vary by ethnicity:

  • For Hispanics, overdoses and suicides are the leading causes of death.
  • For non-Hispanic whites, both men and women, overdoses and alcohol-related diseases appear to drive increased mortality.
  • For non-Hispanic black women, diabetes-related mortality is increasing.
  • For non-Hispanic black men, leading causes are cancer, alcohol-related diseases and external causes, such as traffic accidents.(1)

Loss of job and health insurance during the Great Recession of 2008 was also an issue for these groups. And then there’s the opioid epidemic — but we don’t know how many opioid deaths are really suicides.

The contraction of health insurance coverage with the current rollback of the ACA may prompt further reductions in life expectancy.


  1. Emma Zang, Hui Zheng, Yang Claire Yang, Kenneth C. Land. Recent Trends in U.S. Mortality in Early and Middle Adulthood: Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Inter-Cohort Patterns. International Journal of Epidemiology, 2018 DOI:
  2. Duke University. “Mortality rates rising for Gens X and Y, too: Reduced US life expectancy is not just the Baby Boomers.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 December 2018. <>

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